Catching Rivera more fun than hitting him

Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees

Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees celebrates against the Milwaukee Brewers with teammate Russell Martin #55 at Yankee Stadium. (June 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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The sight of Mariano Rivera's cut fastball coming at you, searing the air on a line and then wickedly breaking at the last instant, is not as intimidating or seemingly impossible as people have made it out to be all these years. Some folks have actually described the experience as pleasant.

It all is a matter of perspective. The key is, you have to be holding a glove, not a bat.

Trying to hit Rivera? Forget about it. You'll probably walk away with a broken bat, shattered psyche or both. It is no accident he is on the verge of breaking Trevor Hoffman's record of 601 saves, adding statistical imprimatur on Rivera's accepted status as the greatest closer ever.

But catching Rivera is completely different. Those who have done it say it ranks with one of the most relaxed, rewarding and least taxing jobs in baseball.

"It was fun, it was great. I loved it," said Joe Girardi, who takes no less delight in Rivera's ninth innings now that he is the manager. "I used to love it when he would come into the game. You just felt like it was over and you could do whatever you wanted."

"Oh man, did he make my job a lot easier," Jorge Posada said.

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When a catcher works with Rivera, there is no agonizing over which pitch to call. For 15 years, it has been almost always the cutter (and an occasional sinker). Just put your glove up there and the ball will find it, because the bat usually won't.

"You almost have to fight against being overconfident or being too relaxed behind the plate," said John Flaherty, the former catcher who is an analyst on the YES Network. "He lulls you to sleep, where you know the ball is going to be right where your glove is set up. The late life is something you obviously have to be ready for, but I think because of his outstanding control, he was just so easy to catch."

Inevitable result

Of course, the other thing you have to be ready for, along with that late break that confounds batters, is the moment when you bounce up on your toes, head to the mound and share a handshake.

"That's 99.9 percent of the time," said Russell Martin, who has had absolutely no trouble learning how to catch Rivera during his first year as a Yankee.

For his part, the 41-year-old Rivera has been decidedly low key about approaching the record. "You don't have to think about it," Rivera said this week. "It doesn't depend just on myself. First of all, there's God, and my teammates."

The teammates who wear chest protectors, shinguards and masks all feel a special kinship for the saves mark. They have been history's nearest witnesses, the ones who have seen and heard the exasperation from a generation of batters.

"They come to the plate and they know," Francisco Cervelli said. "It's like, 'It's Mariano and he's going to break my bat. I'll try to do the best I can. That's it.' "

Catchers also said that Rivera has included them in the process, in his own quiet way. That goes back to the start. So says Posada, who has caught him the most and goes back the longest.

"It had to be Instructional League, '91," said the 40-year-old who doesn't catch anymore. Back then, Posada was spending the fall learning how to catch after having been a second baseman. And a skinny pitcher from Panama was at camp. "He was going through rehab. He had had elbow surgery and he was just tossing here and there."

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They were teammates at Columbus in 1994, when Rivera was a solid starter. Both were in the majors the following year with good stuff. It is generally accepted that Rivera adopted and began perfecting the cutter in 1997, his second full season in the majors. After that it was a whole new ballgame.

"I can't put him into words," Posada said. "People don't understand how good he has been. He's a perfect example of committing to what you do."

Still, if it is so hard for a batter to hit, why doesn't it handcuff the catcher?

"You're calling the pitch, so you know what's coming," Posada said. "You're prepared for it. It breaks either this way or that way."

Girardi said, "When I caught him, he didn't throw a sinker. It was more just the cutter and his control was so great. It's not like you'd ask for it on the outside and he'd throw one way across the plate."

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So Rivera's cutters are like snowflakes, each a thing of beauty, no two the same.

"The hitters know what kind of pitch is going to come, they just don't know where it's going to be," Flaherty said. "When a lefty takes a swing and pulls the ball foul, everybody in the ballpark is like, 'Oh, he's all over the cutter.' Mariano is like, 'No, he can't do anything with it, so I'm going to keep going to it.

"With Mariano, it was never the pitch, obviously, it was location," the broadcaster said, adding that location was up to the catcher.

"He doesn't shake off. He's very trusting of the catcher and what the catcher is feeling or seeing. That was always gratifying because you felt like when he picked up a save, you had something to do with it. Let's be honest, he can throw the ball wherever he wants and he is probably going to be successful. But from a catcher's standpoint, he makes you feel that you had something to do with it."

 

Never off duty

Flaherty recalled that on days he wasn't starting, he would ride the golf cart under the stands with Rivera and reach the bullpen in the fifth.

"Most closers I had been around didn't care about anything until the seventh inning, when they got their rhythm going," he said. "Mariano pays attention from the first pitch. He cares about the entire club, and who's playing the right way."

By the time the ninth rolls around, while his theme music is blaring and the crowd noise is rocking, Rivera is cool enough to keep his catcher calm.

"Because he's a closer, it's always a tight situation, it's always pressure filled, but it's really easy to catch him because of his command," said Martin, who is 0-for-1 lifetime against Rivera ("But I got a hit off him in the [2008] All-Star Game," he said.)

Cervelli said, "It's easy, but you've got to pay attention to him because he likes you to be on the same page with him, you know what I mean? It's an honor. I think in 10 years, I can say with my head up, 'I caught Mariano Rivera.' "

Also, Yankees catchers never have to face that cutter with a bat in their hands. "That," Posada said, "is the best thing."

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